Andy escaped. It was only to the old gray wooden porch, but away from the somber, dark-clothed people in the house. They reminded Andy of crows. He didn’t like crows, not since one stole an egg from a bird’s nest at the park. He’d chased it, but couldn’t catch it.
The screen door squeaked. Heavy footsteps approached. A large shadow fell over Andy. He looked up into the faded blue eyes of his grandfather, Papa Jim. With his long gray hair and beard, he looked like an aging hippy. Deep wrinkles surrounded his eyes and ran down his cheeks, like rivulets through sand.
Papa Jim took off his dark jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and sat down. Andy scooted away. His grandfather scared him. All he remembered was his daddy calling Papa Jim “that crazy mountain man.” His parents often argued about him. His mama visited, but his daddy refused to let Andy go with her.
Sensing Andy’s fear, Papa Jim smiled and his face softened as he said, “I’m glad I found you. Let’s take a walk, boy. Both of us could use some fresh air.” Then, he held out his hand.
Andy hesitated, but the need to escape was stronger than his fear. He took Papa Jim’s big hand. Rough and hard in places, it swallowed Andy’s small one. The house disappeared as they walked down the dirt road, surrounded by a dark forest.
Papa Jim whistled for his dogs, Buddy and Dixie. They ran up to him. In their excitement, they bumped into Andy, making him lean into his grandfather. Papa Jim spoke sternly. “Buddy. Dixie. Go.” The dogs ran ahead, as if they knew where they were going.
When they reached a small path leading into the forest, Papa Jim said, “We’re going to one of my favorite places, but we have to walk through the forest to get there. Keep hold of my hand, okay?”
The forest was scary. Huge trees loomed over Andy, like spooky giants. Sunlight fought its way through their thick leafy branches, casting yellow pools here and there on the forest floor. Andy gripped Papa Jim’s hand.
They walked until the trees began to thin and something sparkled in the distance. Emerging from the forest, Andy saw a blue-green lake. A faded red wooden raft floated in the middle. The shoreline was rocky with only a small sandy beach.
Papa Jim stopped at the beach. With a cheeky grin, he challenged Andy. “I bet I can beat you to that raft out there.”
Andy’s eyes got big. “But Papa Jim, we don’t have bathing suits.”
His grandfather chuckled and said, “Well, in this lake, we swim like God intended us to.”
As Andy realized what his grandfather meant, his cheeks reddened, but Papa Jim was already pulling off his clothes. He sprinted to the water, giving Andy a good look at his white butt. Andy giggled.
His grandfather swam in place and called, “Better get a move on, boy!” Then, with steady strokes he swam away without looking back, leaving it up to Andy to decide.
Andy was a good swimmer. His mama started him as a baby. Now, ten-years-old, he was competing in swim meets. His coaches said he was a natural. But that was in a clear pool; this was a lake with fish and who knows what else in it.
But Andy was competitive; off came his clothes and he splashed into the lake. He took a deep breath and slipped under the water. Silence surrounded him and the water felt like silk against his skin. He swam until his lungs ached and popped up with a splash and a smile. His mama always said he was more fish than boy.
Up ahead, his grandfather had made steady progress towards the raft. Andy knew he wouldn’t catch him, but he swam faster anyway. He shivered as he climbed onto the raft. His eyes darted to his grandfather who lay naked on the weathered wood. Andy flushed again.
Papa Jim glanced at him and said, “Don’t be embarrassed, boy! I’m older, but we got the same parts. Find your spot and lie there for awhile.”
Andy lay down. The warm sun chased away his shivers. Other than the roughness of the wood on his backside, he was comfortable. Fluffy white clouds floated above him. Somewhere nearby a bee buzzed and a bird sang. His eyes got heavy and closed.
A loud splash woke him. He sat up and saw the dogs swimming to the raft. Papa Jim was already up and said, “Get ready!”
Buddy scrambled up first. Dixie followed. Their heavy coats were dripping and both began to shake. Water flew everywhere. Andy ducked, but it didn’t help. He started to laugh and Papa Jim joined him.
Everyone settled back down. His grandfather told stories about his own youth until the shadows stretched long across the water. Finally, he stood up and said, “It’s time to go, Andy.” He dove into the water. Andy and dogs followed.
At the shore, old man and boy shivered as they pulled on clothes. Andy complained his were sandy and uncomfortable on his wet body, but Papa Jim said, “It’s time we were civilized again.”
Walking back through the dark forest, Andy didn’t hold his grandfather’s hand. He wasn’t afraid, just tired, contented, and happy. That is until the big house came into view.
Everything rushed back. The car accident and the knowledge he’d never see his mama and daddy again. Andy grabbed his grandfather’s hand and held it tightly as he sobbed. “Papa Jim, I forgot about them while we were swimming. How could I do that?”
His grandfather looked into Andy’s troubled dark eyes, reminding him so much of his daughter’s eyes. He blinked away tears as he squeezed Andy’s hand and said, “Grieving’s hard work, son. It’s okay to take breaks from it now and then. That’s how we’ll survive.”